The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: New faculty conductor Chad Hutchinson makes an impressive and promising debut with the UW Symphony Orchestra

October 11, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Last Saturday night, Chad Hutchinson (below), the new faculty conductor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, made an impressive and promising debut with the UW Symphony Orchestra.

The ambitious program that Hutchinson put together says a lot about his priorities and instincts, and about his confidence in himself and the abilities of his student players, who performed superbly.  

The varied works came from the early 19th century, the mid-19th century, the early 20th century and the 21st century. And it seemed that each piece in the ambitious program was chosen to put the spotlight on a different section – percussion, brass, strings and winds.

Curiously, The Ear found the most successful pieces were the most traditional ones.

The Prelude to the opera “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” by Richard Wagner received the right mix of horn pomp and string zest. It made The Ear realize again how much more he prefers Wagner’s instrumental music to his vocal music. Let’s hear more Wagner preludes, since we are unlikely to hear more Wagner operas.

The orchestral transcription by Leopold Stokowski (below) of the piano prelude “The Sunken Cathedral” by Claude Debussy was the least successful work of the night. This is the second overblown and bombastic Stokowski transcription that The Ear has heard performed live in a month.

Clearly, Stokowski’s aesthetic was Bigger is Better. This particular transcription strips away the mystery, sensuality and subtlety, the watery softness,  of the original. It works more as an etude for orchestra than as an authentic expression of Impressionism.  The Ear’s objections are to the transcription, not to the performance, which was well voiced, precise and tightly controlled.

“Mothership” by the popular American composer Mason Bates (below), who wrote the recent successful opera based on the life of the late Apple guru Steve Jobs, proved an interesting foray into contemporary music culture. It was also the Madison premiere of the 2011 work.

The electronic music in the pulsating and highly atmospheric score, including the computer-generated disco dance beat, highlighted the percussion section and the UW’s new Electro-Acoustic Research Space (EARS), which collaborated with the symphony orchestra.

The dramatic work, a novelty that is pop-infused and resembles music by John Adams a little too closely, has its pleasing and engaging moments. But overall it seems a triumph of style over substance. (You can judge for yourself from the performance with Michael Tilson Thomas in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

That said, Hutchinson nonetheless held the complex and coordinated score together, and the young audience seemed to take to the new music — a major achievement in itself.

Expect to hear many more contemporary works from Hutchinson, who says he is an unabashed champion of new music. He will include other living composers in many other concerts, including the next one on Nov. 4 and then again on Feb. 22.  

To these ears, the most impressive performance came in the Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” by Ludwig van Beethoven. In its day, the difficult and long work proved revolutionary and perplexing. More recently, more than 100 conductors named it the best symphony ever written. You can’t get more establishment than that.

Yet despite being so mainstream, the “Eroica” remains a difficult and challenging work, both technically and interpretively. And this performance succeeded on both counts. That is no small feat for a new conductor and his young students to pull off in the first six weeks of school.

Especially impressive was Hutchinson’s choice to skip any pause between the third movement and the finale. It worked dramatically to maintain momentum. Such exciting attacks should be a more common practice in performing symphonies and concertos as well as chamber music.

Hutchinson seems a congenial and humorous concert hall host. His pre-concert talk (below), which he is slated to do at all performances, was helpful and informative, even if he repeated some major points when he introduced  the actual performances. Hutchinson, intent on expanding the audience for classical music, is worth listening to.

Hutchinson may not possess an especially graceful or fluid podium presence that is pleasing to watch, but he gets results. Certainly both the student players and the large audience (below) seemed pleased and excited by these performances.

In the end, the concert provided plenty of reasons to look forward to hearing more from Chad Hutchinson and seeing how he develops and leaves his mark on programming and performing at the UW.

Were you there as either a performer or an audience member?

What did you think of the concert and of Chad Hutchinson’s debut?

The Ear wants to hear.

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Classical music: The second week of programs by the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society offers vocal and instrumental music that spans four centuries and includes a world premiere

June 15, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Last weekend, the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society opened its 26th season with two programs in three venues that all proved highly successful.

Building on that success, the chamber music festival with top local and guest performers, now turns to vocal and instrumental music that ranges from the late 18th century up to today, including a world premiere.

As usual, the BDDS venues are suitably intimate for chamber music: The Playhouse (below top) at the Overture Center at 201 State St.; the jewel box historic Stoughton Opera House (below middle) at 381 East Main St.; and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hillside Theater (below bottom) at Taliesin on County Highway 23 in Spring Green.

Concerts are spiked with stories about the music, mystery guests and even door prizes.

This season’s theme is Alphabet Soup, because it’s BDDS’ 26th year and there are 26 letters in the alphabet. Each program is named after a combination of letters used in everyday language. Sometimes the musical interpretation of those letters is literal and sometimes it’s quite loose.

The second weekend of concerts features the San Francisco Piano Trio (below) Axel Strauss, violin; Jean-Michel Fonteneau, cello; and Jeffrey Sykes, piano).

They are joined by UW-Madison’s pianist Christopher Taylor, soprano Emily Birsan (another Madison favorite and a graduate of the UW-Madison and Lyric Opera of Chicago) and internationally acclaimed clarinetist Alan Kay.

TWO PROGRAMS

Two Bs or not Two Bs includes evocative songs by Maurice Ravel for soprano, flute, cello and piano and an entertaining bouquet of earthy cabaret songs by composers Benjamin Britten, William Bolcom and Arnold Schoenberg, sung by Emily Birsan.

The program also features Bela Bartok’s “Contrasts” for clarinet, violin and piano, a work commissioned by the legendary jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman (below), and Johannes Brahms’ epic Piano Trio in C Major, Op. 87. (You can hear a historic recording of Benny Goodman performing the Bartok work, with the composer playing the piano, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Two Bs or not Two Bs will be performed at The Playhouse, Overture Center for the Arts, on Friday, June 16, 7:30 p.m., and at the Hillside Theater, Taliesin, Spring Green, on Sunday, June 18, 2:30 p.m.


Special K is a showcase for Alan Kay, principal clarinetist of the renowned Orpheus Chamber Ensemble.

It includes “The Shepherd on the Rock” for soprano, clarinet and piano by Franz Schubert; the hip tour-de-force “Techno Parade” by Guillaume Conneson (below) for flute, clarinet and piano; and the Midwest premiere of “Living Frescoes” for clarinet, violin, cello and piano by American composer Kevin Puts.

Many will remember that Kevin Puts (below) was the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer BDDS commissioned for the song cycle “In At The Eye” in its 25th season last summer.

The program is rounded out with Mozart’s Piano Trio in E Major and three songs by Erich Wolfgang Korngold (below) sung by Emily Birsan, accompanied by Jeffrey Sykes.

Special K will be performed at The Playhouse, Overture Center for the Arts, on Saturday, June 17, 7:30 p.m., and at the Hillside Theater, Taliesin, in Spring Green, on Sunday, June 18, 6:30 p.m.

Photos by Dick Ainsworth of BDDS performances and behind-the-scenes will be on exhibit in The Playhouse through Sunday, July 9.

Single general admission tickets are $43. Student tickets are always $10.

For tickets visit: http://www.overture.org/events/bach-dancing

For more information about the programs, performers, performances and background, visit www.bachdancinganddynamite.org or call (608) 255-9866.

Tickets can also be purchased at Overture Center for the Arts, (608) 258-4141, www.overturecenter.org (additional fees apply).

Tickets are also available at the door at all locations.


Classical music: Should the Madison Symphony Orchestra program more 20th-century music?

April 14, 2017
21 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

A friend and reviewer for this blog – his specialty is opera but he also is very experienced with the symphonic repertoire — sent in the following opinion piece.

It is being posted in the wake of the announcement by the Madison Symphony Orchestra of its 2017-18 season.

For reference, here is a link to the lineup of the next season’s concerts that was posted yesterday:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/04/13/classical-music-the-madison-symphony-orchestra-announces-its-2017-2018-season-of-nine-concerts-of-favorites-combined-with-firsts/

By Larry Wells

I received my subscription renewal package for the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a  photo by Greg Anderson) a couple of weeks ago, and I was struck then by how conservative and prosaic most of the offerings are.

I’ve mentioned my feelings to acquaintances, and one of the prevailing arguments is that they have to fill the seats.

The assumption seems to be that the patrons will only tolerate music written before 1850.

I’m 70 and I grew up with Stravinsky. I can recall the world premieres of Shostakovich’s final three symphonies. I once eagerly awaited recordings of Britten’s latest works. And I heard the first performances of several works by John Adams (below) while living in San Francisco in the 1980s.

If the assumption is that most reliable patrons are in their 70s and 80s, this seems like a dead-end (pardon the pun). There will be no audience in 20 years.

I believe that audiences can tolerate music of the 20th century — look at the glowing reviews of and enthusiastic ovations for last week’s performances of Witold Lutoslawski’s “Concerto for Orchestra’’ — and attracting younger patrons with bolder musical choices seems an economic necessity.

How can the MSO not be commemorating the centenary of Leonard Bernstein (below, in a photo by Jack Mitchell)? The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra is performing several of his pieces in its upcoming season.

Why do we have to endure another Brahms symphony when we could hear Dmitri Shostakovich’s 11th or 15th or Jean Sibelius’ Fourth or Fifth or even Anton Bruckner’s 8th?

On a positive note, I was heartened to see that Benjamin Britten’s “Sinfonia da Requiem” is scheduled next season since that has been on my wish list for years. Likewise, Leos Janacek’s “Glagolitic Mass” is a nice surprise.

However, when will we hear Britten’s “War Requiem,” Bernstein’s “Mass” or “‘Songfest,” a symphony by Walter Piston (below top) or William Schuman (below middle) or Alan Hovhannes (below bottom)?

I’m really tired of going to concerts where only one of the works is of interest to me and the others are historic artifacts. I’d like to see a reversal wherein Brahms, Mozart and Beethoven are brought out occasionally, but the bulk of the music performed comes from the rich source of the 20th century.

What do you think?

Leave word in the COMMENT section.


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